Berlin has requested that German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall be permitted to acquire old Swiss Leopard tanks, guaranteeing they will not be transferred to Ukraine, the Swiss defense ministry said Friday.
In a letter dated February 23, the German defense and economy ministers asked Swiss Defence Minister Viola Amherd to “approve” the acquisition by Rheinmetall of old, unused Leopard 2 battle tanks, the defense ministry told AFP, confirming a report by the Swiss newspaper Blick.
Since Switzerland’s strict tradition of military neutrality bars all re-export of Swiss-made weaponry to countries at war, Berlin had vowed the tanks would not be sent on to Ukraine, the ministry said.
It had said it could “guarantee” that the tanks would remain within the borders of Germany or its NATO and EU partners, adding they were needed to fill the gaps after its own tank exports to Ukraine, and to supply spare parts.
Switzerland’s military counts 134 Leopard 2 tanks in service, but has for years been warehousing another 96 such tanks, which while regularly tested have not been upgraded.
Germany turned to the Swiss government with a request to buy out the Leopard 2A4 tanks stored there in order to increase the number of tanks supplied to Ukraine pic.twitter.com/vncLtdT7Kw
— NOËL 🇪🇺 🇺🇦 (@NOELreports) March 3, 2023
Berlin also confirmed Friday that it had made the request.
“We would be happy if Switzerland would consider selling stocks from the Swiss fleet that have been decommissioned,” a German defense ministry spokesman said during a regular government press conference.
He did not say how many tanks Rheinmetall wanted to acquire, but confirmed they would “not go to Ukraine.”
In her response dated March 1, Amherd explained that before relinquishing some of its old tanks, they would need to be officially decommissioned by the Swiss parliament, the Swiss defense ministry said.
After analyzing Switzerland’s own needs, the army had meanwhile determined that it would in principle be possible to give up a “limited” number of battle tanks once decommissioned.
The Swiss government is expected to take a position on the issue on Monday, following questions from parliament.
The issue of Switzerland’s long tradition of neutrality has been under debate since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine just over a year ago.
While the wealthy Alpine country – which is not a member of the European Union – has followed the bloc’s lead on sanctions targeting Moscow, it has so far shown less flexibility on its strict military neutrality.
Despite pressure from Kyiv and its allies, Switzerland has so far refused to allow countries that hold Swiss-made weaponry to re-export it to war-ravaged Ukraine, and has to date rejected explicit requests from Germany, Spain, and Denmark.
Several initiatives are under way in parliament towards relaxing the re-export rules, but any decision is likely months away.